Follow the Yellowcake Road: A Journey from Tokyo to Mirrar Country

On 19 July 2019 I boarded a plane in Tokyo and headed to Cairns for two weeks of fieldwork connected with my research on transnational activism in the Asia-Pacific. My purpose was to learn about the pathways via which uranium travels from Australia to Japan and the resistance movements and grassroots connections which have formed along the way. Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Australia supplied approximately one third of Japan’s uranium needs, something I first became aware of when anti-nuclear activists from Australia came to Japan in 2012 for the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World. Since that time I have pondered the nature of the nuclear relationship between my birthplace and my second home in Japan. After delving into the history of this relationship from my dusty office in Tokyo, it was time to make the physical journey along the yellowcake road and see where it might take me.

In Cairns I met with local Japanese-Australian people who organise Smile with Kids, a registered charity which brings junior high school students from Fukushima prefecture whose lives have been disrupted in multiple ways by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster for a ten-day visit to Cairns. The children’s visit happened to coincide with a visit to the city by Peace Boat, a cruise ship with a difference which holds peace and sustainable development education activities onboard during its global and regional voyages.

Peace Boat at Cairns Dock

The ship is part of an NGO which campaigns around these issues and has played a significant role in fighting nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan. Local activists took advantage of this fortuitous timing to organise a welcome event for Peace Boat passengers and staff at which the Fukushima children spoke about their experiences growing up in the wake of the nuclear disaster.

Student from Fukushima Addressing the Welcome Event in Cairns

In Cairns the children stay with local homestay families and take part in an extensive educational programme. One day I accompanied them on a visit to the Cairns cenotaph, where a Cairns-based Japanese man gave a short talk on Australian’s war history and its conflict with Japan in the Second World War. The following day they went to Spring Dew Farm, an organic farm located in the Atherton Tablelands which practices natural farming methods. The farmer is a Japanese-Australian man who took part in an eight-month walk across Australia and Japan in 2003 and 2004 visiting uranium mines and nuclear installations in protest at the devastation wrought by the nuclear industry and in an effort to connect movements and memories in the two countries. After the children had prepared a meal using vegetables they had freshly-harvested from the farm, he spoke to them about the walk.

Students learn about organic farming at Spring Dew Farm

In Canberra I dove into the archives to unearth the history of anti-nuclear resistance in Australia and the ways it has been entwined with Japan’s nuclear energy needs and with anti-nuclear social movements. I wanted to see how witnesses testifying before the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry between 1975 and 1977 understood the geography of the proposed Ranger uranium mine intended to be built in the Alligator Rivers region east of Darwin. The results of my research confirmed what other sources had suggested: uranium mining advocates made much of anticipated demand from Japan to justify their desire to mine while anti-nuclear activists pointed to growing anti-nuclear sentiment there. Connections between movements in the two countries were still embryonic at that time but I found some evidence that connections were already forming which would later develop more fully in subsequent waves of anti-nuclear activism.

Transcripts from the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry

In Darwin I developed an understanding of how uranium mining for the Japanese market fits into the broad sweep of Northern Territory history, its imbrication with Asia and the white man’s ongoing search for a quick buck at the expense of Aboriginal land rights. A local activist took me out to Kakadu where I was privileged to meet briefly with Yvonne Margarula, Senior Traditional Owner of the Mirrar people. I then spent two hours talking with staff at the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, the body established by the Mirrar to manage their royalties from the Ranger uranium mine and maintain ‘a balance between sustainable development, traditional practice and living culture on their land’. Here I learned about the centrality of the Japanese uranium market to the Ranger uranium mine and to the Mirrar’s own understanding of their struggle. We finished the day with a drive past the Ranger mine, where I peered into the deep hole created by the now defunct mine. The hole is now being filled with tailings from the storage dam as part of the clean-up effort. Thanks to the long Indigenous-led struggle, signs are good that Ranger will be cleaned up to a high standard.

Entrance to the Ranger Mine

I concluded my trip by attending the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) conference in Darwin. This organisation is made up of a patchwork of groups who are working to maintain and rebuild the struggle for peace across Australia and the region. The network was established in response to the US pivot to Asia and Australia’s role in this, such as via the establishment of a permanent ‘rotation’ of US marines in Darwin. The diverse currents of the peace movement represented at the conference included everything from Christian groups to former diplomats and academics to the Maritime Union of Australia, a Greens senator, local Indigenous elders and many others, all infused with an anti-racist and internationalist outlook.

Robin Taubenfeld addresses the IPAN conference

Amidst all of this diversity it might seem difficult to find the common, but at our protest action outside the Darwin military base where 2500 US troops are now permanently ‘rotated’ I was reminded that praxis can often provide a way to resolve contradictions between people with differing perspectives.

IPAN protest outside Robertson Barracks, Darwin

A series of fortuitous timings structured my trip, giving me a lesson in the importance of chance, synchronicity and goodwill when conducting fieldwork in unfamiliar terrain. I had a basic plan and some contacts in each port of call, but I still had concerns about whether I would find the story I wanted to tell. As I followed the yellowcake road, however, I uncovered a rich tapestry of people, places and things which weave Australia and Japan together in the atomic age and gained just the inspiration I needed to tell the story of the way uranium mining and the quest for energy resources have connected our two island nations in the nuclear age.